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Apart of the World

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'When you're working with kids who haven't seen apartment buildings, trains, cows and pigs, a lot of the things they read are foreign to them.'

Charles Kashatok director of Yup'ik studies,
Lower Kuskikwim School District

"I think [other villagers] stay because their families need help at home. I also think a lot of them didn't have the role models I did, and maybe weren't as exposed to the outside world," says Don, who took 10 years of intermittent attendance to earn her degree from Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, a common pattern among educated village residents.

"As a Yup'ik person, I think I'm being looked up to here," Don says. "You can go to college, you can graduate. I'm proof that it's possible."

Meanwhile, some Alaskans believe that the schools need to adapt more to the native culture, both to pass on the skills needed for village life and to make other options more possible by making school seem more relevant.

"We are trying," says Polson, Akiak's principal, as he is interrupted to sign a purchase order for rabbit snares.

Adult residents come to the Yupiit and the Lower Kuskokwim schools to teach traditional skills like trapping, fishing, and skinning a caribou.

Some of the schools have paid staff members who teach Yup'ik studies. Mary Ann Lomack teaches high school girls in Akiachak to make items like quilts and Eskimo dolls. She also teaches the Yup'ik language, which is taught in all the schools in the region. The Lower Kuskokwim district has launched Yup'ik immersion programs in a few schools that the Yupiit district is considering emulating--if officials can find enough Yup'ik-speaking teachers.

In the larger Lower Kuskokwim, 74 of 268 certified teaching positions are filled by natives, the highest percentage in the state. The districts offer scholarships to teachers' aides who seek degrees. The University of Alaska also has a program that aims to recruit natives and offers summer training programs for white teachers who intend to work in rural Alaska.

Finding relevant instructional materials to support the cultural work also is a challenge. The Yupiit district commissioned a custom-made set of readers about 10 years ago that focuses on local topics. Teachers also try to make lessons more relevant with projects and examples that students can more easily relate to. Shop students in Akiachak, for example, make dog sleds and gun racks. The hallway of Akiak's high school is lined with a mural depicting tundra animals.

"When you're working with kids who haven't seen apartment buildings, trains, cows or pigs, a lot of the things they read are foreign to them," says Charles Kashatok, the director of Yup'ik studies for the Lower Kuskokwim district and a native of the village of Kipnuk, located on the seacoast about 100 miles from Bethel.

"It won't make sense, it's not going to seem important, it's not going to help them learn to think, reason, and solve problems," Kashatok says. "They may not be able to solve a problem that talks about the space shuttle, but they sure can understand a problem about a snow machine."

But the core of the curriculum would be familiar to educators from the Lower 48.

"There are some who argue that it should be different, but we try to give them the same thing kids are taught everywhere," Polson says.

There is a growing movement among native Alaskan educators to weave the indigenous culture more tightly into the curriculum by "teaching in the culture, rather than teaching about the culture," in the words of Oscar Kawagley, a University of Alaska education professor who is the acknowledged leader of this movement.

His 1993 book, A Yupiaq World View: Implications for Cultural, Educational and Technological Adaptation in a Contemporary World, has been influential in spreading the idea that "native ways of knowing" should be given equal footing in rural schools with the more linear, compartmentalized, fact-driven Western curriculum.

Sometimes, it appears that the priorities of teaching traditional values and contemporary knowledge are in opposition.

For example, at the Yupiit district's annual education summit in March, Kawagley was a featured speaker. He said students should be taught to blend traditional and Western knowledge and that too much dependence on textbooks "destroys curiosity and creativity." He said that children should be taught "from the perspective of the Yup'ik--a connection to Mother Earth" and that children should be taken out into the tundra to learn.

Superintendent Weise followed, taking a decidedly different tack. Despite years of effort, he said, the district's test scores are "still at the bottom."

"Parents' reading levels often determine the children's reading level," he told the gathering of about 200 educators and parents. "Yes, I agree with Dr. Kawagley--go out into the tundra--but when you go, take a book!"

But the debate itself was deceiving--with the educators on the same side in actuality.

Weise, a part Eskimo who hails from Bethel, agrees with Kawagley that traditional values and knowledge should be taught along with the Western curriculum that students must master if they aspire to the kind of success the educators have enjoyed themselves.

"I was trying to get their attention," he says later. "I'm in increasing-awareness mode. I think there's been a tendency to assume the tests from the Lower 48 aren't relevant here and dismiss the results."

But he, too, sees progress. When he visits families, more parents "are expressing concern about where their children are in reading, writing, and arithmetic. I think a change is coming. They see that their children are going to be more a part of the world and need to be ready for it."

The bottom-line question for educators is what future the Yup'ik children are being prepared for. Will they live in the American mainstream or in the village? Educators are particularly concerned about the villages' ability to survive, especially once the new federal welfare reforms kick in this summer that give most adults only two more years of benefits. Alaska, however, is trying to find community-service alternatives for the unemployed in the Bush.

"We have to give our people the kind of education that will make their lives more meaningful and help them not be dependent on public assistance or other programs," says state and local school board member Michael Williams.

"We need teachers and medical providers. We need accountants and administrators, we need equipment operators, we need pilots. We need carpenters, and we need accountants to run businesses in our villages," Williams says. "We also need to have the best-educated hunters and fishermen around."

Educators are particularly concerned about the villages' ability to survive, especially once the new welfare reforms kick in this summer.

When Carole Seyfrit, a sociology professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., surveyed students in rural Alaska about their aspirations in 1995, a whopping 90 percent in the Yupiit high schools said that they planned to attend college. The response rate stands in stark contrast with the handful of residents who have actually taken the jump.

"One of the things we're looking at is the conflict between the push to go to college and the pull of staying in the village," says Seyfrit. "There's ambivalence in the responses. You could interpret it to mean they plan to do different things at different times in their lives or they just don't know." But, she says, it also "could be evidence that attitudes are changing and big social changes are on the way. What this means for the villages is a good question."

Others look for meaning in far less clinical ways. "These are the children we will depend on in the future to run the villages. It's very important for them to have some understanding of the native culture and way as well as the American way of life," school board Chairman Kasayulie says. "Our mission is to provide understanding of survival [techniques] as well as to help people who get out of the communities to seek jobs in larger cities.

"Some will leave and not come back," he says. "Some will come back, and we'll be waiting for them."

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